Helloween: the pumpkins claim their rights

Helloween 2015

Over the years, Helloween have shown that they reserve the right to do whatever they want, whether it is the controversial Chameleon (1993), the gloomy The Dark Ride (2000), or the sometimes crazy Unarmed (2009). But that also means they have the right to release a “traditional” album, something that will satisfy the three generations of fans that have followed them through the years and the turmoil that went along with them. Said album is called My God-Given Right, and guitarist Michael Weikath would really like it to replace the obligatory Scorpions best of record in every household in the world. This is the summary of Helloween’s sound, a perfect release to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of their first album, Walls Of Jericho, twenty years with singer Andi Deris, and ten years with the current line-up (a record for the pumpkins).

We met founding member Michael Weikath and Andi Deris to talk about the band’s fifteenth record, their musical choices (which have something to do with producer Charlie Bauerfeind), and the themes of the album – and, from there, to extrapolate on thorny topics, like humor, religion, and freedom. Because the two buddies are the talkative kind, we learned many things about them and the band along the way.

Helloween 2015

« We always surprise ourselves. At the end of the day, you have a finished album and you don’t know exactly how it came to be! »

Radio Metal: Andi, about this new album you said: « Back to the roots, but with new songs. » Straight out Of Hell was already a “back to the roots” kind of album. Do you think the success of that previous album, which had reached the highest German chart position so far, made you realize that your roots was the way to go?

Andi Deris (vocals): Yes and no, I mean, back to the roots didn’t mean we intended to go back to the 80’s completely. So for Straight out of Hell we still had 2013 in the back of our mind, so we should not completely sound like a reproduction of the 80’s; that never was intended. But for now, 2015, for the My God-Given Right album, it is pretty much the same vibe, they combine three decades of metal. So don’t forget the 80’s, also don’t forget the 90’s, like a Dark Ride touch from the year 2000. We’re quite aware that we have nearly three generations of audience, so you may always try to… or you only can try to satisfy them all.

You actually called this album “typical ‘80s Helloween and modern Helloween at the same time.” Said like that, that sounds pretty contradictory. How did you manage to do that?

You cannot manage it on purpose actually. You just hope that you have enough song ideas and fragments on the table to actually make a nice mixture which could fulfill that. So you have enough from the 80’s, you have enough from the 90’s, you have enough for now. So it’s always a gambling kind of thing. We had like 30 ideas or so on the table, we sat down together with the producer and management, and we were happy to have picked out like 18 songs which could do the job, and out of this 18 we wanted to have at least 12 or 13 songs on the album, and the rest was recorded as well but it’s stuff which is not really fitting into this, into that concept. I mean if you take one or two of these b-side onto the album, it would have not so nice mixture anymore, but we were happy to have enough songs to choose from.

You also said that “there’s actually no big surprise on there. It’s just the typical classical metal as it’s supposed to be.” How do you actually manage to keep challenging yourselves and your fans by making “classical metal as it’s supposed to be”?

That’s always in itself a bit tricky, but as I told you, as long as you have enough material that can do the job… I feel it’ll become a bit of a not fulfilling job if you would have only 13 songs written for an album, I doubt that this would have the right mixture. So you need a lot of songs to choose from to actually have a nice mixture. But then again, you can’t please everyone anyway, I just hope the majority will enjoy the way it is, like that journey through three decades of metal you may say. But you will definitely not satisfy everybody because you may imagine that the 50 something years old die-hard fan from the 80’s doesn’t want to listen to the new shit, so maybe he’s not as satisfy as the guy who grew up with us during the 90’s, because I think this generation who grew up with us during the 90’s are more opened to the 80’s but also more opened to the future. So these are actually the guys who would probably enjoy 80% of the album, if not the whole album. But the old folks, like me for example, they will never be satisfied: “More 80’s, more 80’s!” You know? I hear them, I feel them, but then again we have a responsibility to the new people, to the new fans. And honestly, they are much important because they kept us alive. So this is something we have to say clearly here. It’s not the old fans who kept us going, it’s the new fans. We’re in this great happy situation to gain more and more new fans, and this makes you going.

It seems like producer Charlie Bauerfeind is often very much involved in the musical direction of your albums. Apparently that’s him who wanted this new album to be “typical ‘80s Helloween and modern Helloween at the same time”, and when we previously spoke, Andi, you had told us that it was also him who came up with the idea to make Straight Out Of Hell a more positive album. Do you have a complete trust in him?

At least he is the first external ear listening to all the ideas. It’s hard to decide. We have four songwriters in the band, each and every song you have written is your own baby! I mean certainly you like your own songs most, I mean these are your babies and nobody writes better songs than yourself, which is in itself a lie but it’s your feeling. So it would be a stupid mistake to actually ask the band to choose the songs for the album. That would be war, like we all know. I mean, you’re a long haired guy, maybe you have a band, so if you have a band, you know the problems inside the band when it comes to picking out the favorite songs, and actually nobody should do that. The band should actually leave it to other people they trust, just to actually stop that stupid war inside the band. “My song is better than yours, my song blah blah…” That’s already the beginning of the end, and we definitely want to push that responsibility into other hands, I think it’s healthier [laughs]. And Charlie’s definitely a guy who listens to all the ideas and kind of is able to sort it in a short period of time. He listens twice or maybe maximum three times to all the ideas, and he’s having a picture then. And he can tell you then: “Look, the strongest songs I’ve heard, doesn’t matter whose written them, but the strongest ones I hear are pointing into this direction,” and then that’s the way we go.

Helloween - My God Given Right

« I’m not holy, I’m not the good guy here. I’m just another asshole. But, nevertheless I see my mistakes and I ask myself why the fuck am I the way I am? »

Andi, you declared: “I never know how, but somehow we did it once again… The album really rock and kick some major asses!” And Michael you said: “I’m very surprised and happy with the outcome of it.” It sounds like you actually surprised yourself with your own album. How can you explain that?

Michael Weikath (guitar): It was because of what I knew during the recordings, what I heard and what was done. You didn’t hear the final results, you were doing the guitars and then you had your imagination thinking what would be or could be. Actually, I thought: “Maybe it could be too harmless or too naïve or too open!” And I was thinking: “Ah maybe there’s another heavy track missing or something”. But when I heard every single one we played to the media, I was like: “Yeah, that’s good!” Because it’s so open, you know? It reminds me of some commercial Iron Maiden records or some Scorpions records. And I also thought of the White Album with all the varieties that they have on that but not quite as extreme, and we are not the freaking Beatles, you know, we are just the Helloween guys. But I thought: “Hey, this could actually work!” And then we get all these positive reviews from the people. There was no the single yet and we’ve been talking to a lot of critique people who could have told us: “You know guys, everybody may say different but I think you fucked up the album and it’s a freaking load of crap. I don’t like it.” There wasn’t this one guy! And we know a lot of people who are actually honest and they would probably tell us, but they were all like: “I think it’s better than Straight Out of Hell!” And then we were like: “Really? OK.” So that’s how I was surprised, or pleasantly surprised.

Andi: I just said that, because it’s always that way. We always surprise ourselves. At the end of the day, you have a finished album and you don’t know exactly how it came to be!

Michael: : You don’t have a clear picture before. You only assume things. And I thought it’s so accessible that even housewives would buy it, which I think is maybe a good thing if you wanna play the album for housewives, you know, heavy metal housewives [chuckles] who go like: “Ok, I buy the best of Scorpions because I need some rock music in my collection.” And maybe that’s best with this one! I don’t know if there are other things that they could get… They could get the Chameleon or Unarmed albums or whatever, but it’s not that, this album is still straight forward and everything it’s meant to be, which is a good thing and so I was surprised!

Michael you said: « In times like these when melodic heavy metal isn’t exactly at a pinnacle in the general media, you have to keep the costs low, and you have to be specific to what you wanna do regarding the bullshitting or doing work. » Do you mean you had to restrict yourselves in the making of My God-Given Right? What did that imply for the album, do you have any regrets because of a lack of budget or else?

Michael: No I have no regrets and, you know, we are in a lucky position. We have that producer, Charlie Bauerfeind, we have Andi Deris’ studio and the equipment that is there. And yes we do have to cut short on things because in the past when we did the Keeper records and stuff, we wasted so much money for experimenting with guitar solos or sounds or constructing something there, like the intro of “Dr. Stein”, or whatever. That took so much time and there was so much studio money! With that we could have done so much other stuff and we are restricting each other because we want to keep the costs low. There are bands in Los Angeles, California, who have a producer who is taking a few lines of cocaine every day and then he goes like: “Aaaah, you know, I’m waiting for a vision, will everybody please stand by? You can take your cars, go home, have a sex party or something, have some booze, do as I do… I’m still looking for some kind of vision and appearance. And when that happens, I’m going to tell you and then you can come to the studio and you can maybe record your bass.” And then the bass player’s coming and he goes: “Yeah, I don’t know, maybe today the vibe is not so good, I don’t feel optimum, I can play something, I’m not so sure.” So they are wasting a lot of time. They have the producers, they have the money, somebody behind is this paying for the production, that’s the American way. We really minimize ourselves and we try to go: “Let’s try to record a free solo tonight”, and then we try that for ten minutes. If there’s no real big idea or something, in the past we would have tried it until it was finished, we would have tried hours, four hours, five hours, just for one solo. If that happens today and I don’t really get a super idea right now, I say: “Ok, let’s stop, we’re recording something different”, and then I go home and I work out a nice solo. Then that solo I send to [Charlie] by email so he already knows it, so he can already put it in there where it belongs, and then either we play it the same way as on the demo, just properly, or we even change little things. We had this one solo where he said: “You know, that part back there, I like it a lot but let’s put that in the beginning or in the second part and then we take the other part from there to there, and there I think you could play something different.” And then I go like “Yeah, ok!” That’s how we do things; it saves you a lot of time. And that’s how we restrict ourselves.

The album is called My God-Given Right. So what would be your God-given right?

Andi: It’s actually a personal thing. I’ve written the track “My God-Given Right”, and the boys thought it was a great album title. But the track itself, the meaning is very intimate. It’s something that my dad told me. He took me aside and said: “Look, you’re my only son, and if you are happy, I’m happy. It’s your God-given right to do whatever you like with your life. As long as it makes you happy, do it.” He was the only guy who was actually giving me the courage to do music, because whomever I told I would like to do music was calling me crazy. You made your exams, you made your school, go to study, and go to learn a proper profession – what is a proper profession anyways nowadays? Never understood this. At the end of the day it was all about learning something secure to actually give you a guarantee to earn money. And if you look at the most unhappy people on this world, who commits suicides, are mostly sons of rich people. So money cannot be the answer. It’s quite clear that you need a certain amount of money, because when you have nothing, not even a penny, then you have a problem. But I don’t think it’s important to have more money. I think if you have sufficient money to survive, and to follow your dreams, whatever they are, then you should call yourself a happy person. So where does this urge to create even more and more money come from? I think it’s a disease of mankind to not be satisfied with what we have, and want to have even more. I mean you can only drive one car, why should I actually have three or four in my garage? I never understand this. There are other things where I see myself in the same vibe, for example when it comes to watches, I’m a watch fan, so this is also stupid, you know? How many watches can you have? Like, one! But as I said, I’m not holy, I’m not the good guy here. I’m just another asshole. But, nevertheless I see my mistakes and I ask myself why the fuck am I the way I am? Why are we the fuck the way we are? I have no solution here but it must be possible to put it into lyrics, that’s what is important for me. Well I’m not a politician, put it that way. On the other hand, even our politicians, when you look at Brussels, we pay them a shit load of money, you guys in France, as in Germany, Spain, everybody all over Europe pays a shit load of money and they have no solution, so who are we to find a solution? I mean, we don’t call ourselves politicians.

Helloween 2015

« There’s lots of assholes in this world we could actually bitch about without crossing the limit. There is no limit because they didn’t live their lives with limits? »

In Helloween you often write about God and religion in a humorous way. And today there’s a big debate about whether we can laugh about religion or not. Do you think that the lack of humor or self-mockery from some religious people has become a problem?

It has not become a problem, it always was a problem! If we look back hundreds of years it was even worse. My problem I do have is not with God, I do have a problem with man-made churches, so actually the Catholic Church, that’s our church, the biggest church in Europe, this is a church made by people, not by God. And if you look into the History book, then for me it’s quite clear that this church was only found by people actually for power. Money making, power making, reasons. And it definitely spoils my God. I want to believe in a higher being, in a supreme being, without church. I don’t need a church. And if it’s made by man, even more not. To the contrary, I’m scared about everything that people say we should do in the name of God. There are 20.000 alarm clocks in my head that say: “So God told you that I should actually kill that guy in the name of God?” Have you ever read the bible? That can’t be, that’s just a lie, in the lie of the lie in the lie, you know? So churches are bad, but nevertheless, I think there is a higher being, simply because we cannot explain why we are here on earth. So it would be stupid not to believe in something more supreme, more above us. You call it energy, you call it guy, you call it God, you call it an idol, I don’t freaking care, give it whatever name you like. This God would come from me. And we are all responsible to more or less lead a good life here. For example I think Jesus is a great guy, if he’s the son of God or not, I don’t care! He’s a great guy, and the Ten Commandments and everything he stands for, that’s really cool! I mean that’s the way to go, that’s the way we live together. You don’t hurt me, I don’t hurt you, I don’t piss on you, you don’t piss on me and we respect and try to like each other. What’s wrong with this? I think that’s really cool. So from that perspective, I’m religious.

Are there some subjects you don’t allow yourselves to laugh about?

I don’t know, it comes down to being tasteful or not tasteful [laughs]. There is probably a limit where I would not step over. I would definitely not bitch about dead people, something like that, there’s too much respect. Unless it’s not a complete asshole, I mean, maybe writing bad things about Adolf Hitler is good, because he was an asshole, if you mean what I mean. That would be my typical German example. And there’s lots of assholes in this world we could actually bitch about without crossing the limit. There is no limit because they didn’t live their lives with limits, so they may be punished forever, it’s okay with me. There are limits when it comes to my consciousness. I mean, that’s something I have to make clear for myself, if it’s okay to write about it in that way or not. I actually couldn’t give you an example but, at least, I try to respect everything, in the way that I don’t want to finger point on certain people, don’t want to name them, as we for example did: we didn’t name them but everybody knew who’s meant when we did The Legacy. The Keeper Of The Seven Keys: The Legacy was definitely finger pointing to the president of the United States at that time without naming him. But anyone who was interested could read through the lyrics and it was super clear who was meant and what is being told. We had the Iraq war going on, everybody was scared to death. Honestly, I really thought: “Okay, I mean, one more thing and you have the next World War.” It had to be said. It was a really important thing those days, and Helloween is never out of social criticism or free of politics. They started with The Keeper Of The Seven Keys back in the days. There were a lot of things translated into the Keeper’s fantasy world, and if you want, you can translate it into the present day and you’ll know exactly what’s going on here. We did the same with the Keeper three album. So this is something very, very nice about the band: if you have something to say you can actually really bitch like a maniac without saying names. In the Keeper’s world, you just need to go through the lyrics and kind of translate it, and then you know exactly what the band is bitching about. That’s the kind of freedom we have. Nevertheless there is always a limit, a border that you shouldn’t cross, I mean, when it comes to respect. Yeah, okay, it’s probably different for each and every person. Your respect is maybe more or less than mine and at the end of the day, do it right for yourself, I think that’s okay, and then it should be right for everybody else.

In the song “Stay Crazy”, you sing: “We wanna stay crazy, we wanna live our way…” And with “My God-Given Right” that makes two songs about individual freedom. Do you think our freedom is in danger today?

Yes and no. I mean nowadays you cannot actually stop what we started. You got all these techniques, satellites, whatever you name it, so you’re quite transparent in the very moment when you actually switch on your iPhone or your Samsung or whatever smartphone. So, what is freedom? It’s a very delicate question. Nowadays you have the technology to control each and every piece of your life, of my life, of our life. So, freedom, it’s a very abstract word nowadays. As long as everything runs down smoothly and there’s no attack from the outside of, I’d say, our western world, then we’re allowed to live more or less in the free world. As soon as there’s more terrorists and shit going down, we are more controlled. So then we talk again about freedom. Theoretically, we’re not living in a free world because each and every word you say is being controlled or what you write is being double checked. It doesn’t affect your freedom, you cannot feel it but still, it is actually as if you would not be free, because everything is kind of controlled. As long as you behave okay, nobody’s harming you, but as soon as somebody thinks: “Ah, what’s that?” A certain word in your email or whatever, and suddenly you’re double checked or maybe you’re in observance or whatever. Are you free then? And still you don’t know it. So this is the question: do you feel free by knowing that theoretically there are people who are observing you? I don’t know. Different kind of freedom. Digital freedom [laughs].

Helloween 2015

« It takes a lot of discipline to do something like this Helloween band, and then you also need the commitment and the conviction, which wasn’t always the case! »

This year marks the 30 years of the first Helloween album Walls Of Jericho. Helloween’s career has had several eras and been through many twists and turns. How did you manage to still be here today, true to the Helloween brand that started with the Walls Of Jericho album?

Michael: We just keep going because there’s not so much other stuff most of us would like to do. I’m more or less fine with what I have to do and living my life between the things that are necessary to run this band. Soon we will have guitar rehearsals in Berlin. So we would get together [with Sascha Gerstner] and check what has to be done to make it sound good, if there were things that one of us forgot or if there are parts that I didn’t play or if there are parts he didn’t play on the record. So we can put it all together and say: “Ok, you play like this, actually it goes like this.” And then we go on, we meet with the rest of the band and then we have rehearsals as a whole and we do the festivals. Then between the festivals sometimes there’s too much of a time, so that maybe you forget things, so we have additional little rehearsal in between and then do the next festivals show. And, you know, all of this is taking a lot of time, also checking into the airport, fly somewhere, go from there, go to the hotel, open the door, sit down, then you switch on the TV and that’s private. I’m not complaining, it’s just that I’m saying it takes a lot of things to do to have a band bound, and sometimes you want to check on what you are able to do apart from that. I don’t think I’m really able and I don’t have to because we’re in a lucky situation. We earn some money with the shows that we do and records that we maybe sale, which could be a lot more, and so nowadays you got to do the concerts and sale some t shirts to make a living, and that luckily is running fine. And I don’t need to do anything else, and I don’t feel compelled like I should, but I got myself some interesting studio equipment that makes me enjoy the whole thing a lot more, because it works a lot better than what I had before and that was kind of limited, it didn’t sound too good, and now I’m really thrilled by what I have. I got some Universal Audio equipment which is doing great things in high resolution for mixing and for bouncing signals and now I can work with some sounds that I’ve never had the opportunity to work with before, which is kicking me and then I say: “You know, maybe I should record more stuff than I did before, who knows?” At least I feel like doing so. If I do that, it’s a different thing, because I also enjoy going to the bar in my street and have a coffee, just like this [points to the coffee he’s drinking], and that’s also important because you’re looking for ideas, you know? If I’m too stressed and too many things are going on, I usually don’t get good ideas. So for me, having the leisure is really important too. So if I’m running after all kinds of projects, I think my songs would get less good. And maybe people would like to have it that way because maybe they think they are better or whatever, but I don’t think so. I’d rather do the stuff that I’m convinced is the best way to do something.

The current Helloween line-up is now ten years old, which makes it, by far, the longest living Helloween line-up…

Yes, that says something!

How can you explain that?

Kind of like what I said before and that we have band members that have a lot of experience, and others that are kind of intelligent, or both; experienced and kind of intelligent. And then we are interested in how to meet socially and to treat each other good. We’re not really having fun putting somebody down or creating difficult situations, or make fun of one person, we don’t do that. We usually make fun of Danny [Löble] because he’s such a nice guy and he can take it sometimes, but if that was too much, I think he would also complain, so we try to be nice to each other and be civilized. And it takes a lot of discipline to do something like this Helloween band, and then you also need the commitment and the conviction, which wasn’t always the case! Like there’s been people who told me in this band like: “Who wants to hear twin vocal melodies? Nobody! » And I think that’s the wrong attitude for being in a band like this. And then I heard: “Our music is old fashion and boring, and we should do something about it. The evolution is not taking place. Is this all this band is capable of?” And that’s also not the right attitude. It may sound positive or it may sound like it’s going to lead somewhere but it basically means: “I’m not convinced of what we’re doing and I hate this.” That’s what it tells me. People like that have to go, and I’d rather work with people like we have now because we respect each other, we try to keep being modest, and we always try to find a good solution for everybody. It’s like: “I’m not happy with this situation!” “Ok, can you explain why?” “Because of this and that!” “What can we do about it?” “Ah, we could do this, etc.” And so then you have a solution, right? Rather than going: “Eh, you’re a crap head and I hate my job!” And whatever, then there’s no solution! That’s how we try to run things. Which is a lot different from how we ran things in the old Helloween band. Also we have a management who knows each and every character. They also take care of Kai Hansen and Unisonic. Our tour manager is the drummer of Unisonic [Kosta Zafiriou] and we have Jan Bayati who’s a manager who knows Andi since ages, but who also understands where I’m coming from and what my history is because we talked a lot. So you have a conglomerate of people who take good care of each other. If somebody’s freaking out, then somebody else maybe has something to say to support or to try to soothe him down. It’s been working really good for the last eleven years.

Interview conducted 20th, april 2015 by Valentin Istria.
Retranscription: Valentin Istria.
Introduction: Nicolas Gricourt.
Promo pics: Martin Häusler.

Helloween official website: www.helloween.org.

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